Stories from the Vertical
While spooning our haul bags and slowly feeding out rope from the GriGri all I wanted to do was throw up what little food and water I had left in my stomach. Dan, Wes and I were on Lurking Fear which sits on El Capitan's Southwest Face (the most sun exposed wall of this cliff) in the midst of record high temperatures. I had done plenty of aid climbing before but our progress in this heat was just too exhausting and we were slowly running out of water. The three of us on a two man portaledge (not recommended) made it half way up before we decided to bail after an unfortunate accident involving dehydration, canned peaches, coffee and a mishap with a WAG bag.
Topping out on that monolith consumed my thoughts. I mailed Wes a new copy of Yosemite Bigwalls to gauge his interest.
A climbing trip to California in July typically involves time in the High Sierras. But the temperatures in the Valley were too perfect. High's of 75-80 degrees were perfect for hanging out on a wall. An Icebreaker t-shirt and a Patagonia Houdini were the perfect paring most of the time.
After picking up some groceries in Oakhurst we B-lined it to the Valley. In the midsts of grilling hamburgers, sorting gear and few too many beers we somehow decided upon Zodiac. It was, after all, the shadiest part of the Captain. "If it gets too hot, we'll climb at night and sleep in the day." Wes said.
I woke up to the roar of the MSR Windburner and the smell of strong, black coffee. We fried some eggs and bacon and loaded the entire rack consisting of a few sets of cams, 2 sets of brass and alloy wires, and all the iron and hooks. After shoving in the final lead rope I found that picking up my haul bag to be quite challenging. Making our way up the scree to the base we found ourselves below the clean golden granite that characterizes the lower 4 pitches of Zodiac. Wes led the first pitch as I jugged and cleaned. Starting off on pitch 2 I stood off the belay bolt and reached for the Black Diamond Yellow X4 off my harness. As I shifted my body weight onto my aiders I failed to hear the treacherous sliding sound cams can make when they're poorly placed in blown out pin scars. Then POP! The next thing I knew, I was 15' from where I was the second before . I jugged back up knowing Wes was not excited that I just took a whip onto the belay on the very first C1 pitch. I pushed my fear aside and continued on. My movement was slow. I felt disorganized as the rack weighed almost as much as me.
Halfway through the pitch I felt the immensity of the 3,000' cliff come down on me. Fear and the commitment required to climb this thing over-powered all my senses. I tried placing a cam hook but then saw it slide 3 inches down the crack with me on it, ready to take yet another ride on an easy pitch. Two hours later I reached the bolted anchor and fixed the rope. Climbing over rivets and hooks Wes made quick work of pitch 3. In the process of cleaning I somehow managed to drop an etrier and a glove. We fixed our lines and I was crushed. My mind drifted to far off places and I felt my energy and psychness for climbing drift away. Low pressure and rain settled into the Valley for the next two days giving my mind a chance to recover.
With four days of food, water and whiskey, we worked our way to our starting point. On day two I found myself volunteering to lead the Nipple Pitch. As I jugged up to the belay, the wall became steeper as the air under my feet became more and more vast. My motivation decreased. "You sure you don't want to lead this pitch Wes?" I asked. I found the courage somewhere and started fishing in DMM offset brassies into the blown out pin scars. As I made it to the wide section I found great comfort standing in my aiders imagining the first ascensionist, Charlie Porter, in 1972 laying back this behemoth of a crack all by himself with no modern gear to protect the wide off-width . More thin gear led to our hanging bivy underneath a roof.
Two days later we pulled ourselves back onto horizontal terrain. My legs knew how to push down but when I tried for any forward movement, they gave some resistance. Both mine and Wes' El Cap cherries were popped. As is typical of summiting, the finest moments in life never seem to be overly joyful. El Capitan had always been my goal ever since I first started climbing ten years ago and to be up there with my local hero and all around bad ass, was very special. With nowhere important to be we decided to watch the sun set over the High Sierras while the Northwest Face of Half Dome caught the alpenglow and burnt orange. The stars were bright and the wind was calm. There is truly nothing more spectacular than open bivies in the mountains.
With a day of rest and and a night in North Pines Campground we decided to return to the uncompleted route we had attempted 6 years earlier. A limited time schedule forced us to climb ground up leaving us carrying our body's weight worth of gear, water and food on our backs to the base of the wall. The movement was slow and the sun intense. The climbing on Lurking Fear was technically easier but more slabby, making hauling more strenuous. With the fear of thunderstorm clouds moving in from the southeast we climbed as quickly as possible while keeping a close eye on the air pressure on my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak. After our plush bivy on Thanksgiving ledge we reached the top right before a heavy down pour which made walking down the slabs slow, tedious and frightening. After two El Cap routes in 11 days we decided that a dinner and a bottle of wine at the Ahwahnee would be appropriate.
Till next time...